Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The Pest

I was twelve; my brother was eight. We rarely got along. We lived in a big house which my family had converted into a mission chapel in Grand Island, New York.

Sometimes, my brother and I played together--or tolerated each other, at least--for a while. "War" was an ever-present threat.

I was the bossy older sister. He easily earned the label, "The Pest." I was still mad at him for demolishing my doll collection when I was six. He'd done a lot since then to aggravate me, too.

We weren't allowed to hit, but sometimes we'd shove each other a little. Mostly, we just argued, becoming quite adept at "murder by sharp tongue."

(Later, as a chubby teenager, I discovered that the best way to control his pestering was to get him down and sit on him until our parents arrived.)

He got home from school before I did. I didn't like the fact that I had no control over what he did to my "stuff" for an hour or so each day. He delighted in the opportunity--as long as Mom didn't catch him.

Walking home from the school bus stop one day, I could see that my bike was moved from where I'd left it the day before. The Pest had been at it again! How dare he ride my bike!

Mad, I flung open the front door. My mother was playing the piano in the "sanctuary" (our large, extra living room, set up for chapel services). The Pest was standing near her. Startled, they both looked up as I began my tirade.

Suddenly, without a word, he walked toward me, thrust something in my hand, and quickly left the room. I looked down and opened a card he had carefully made in school that day. Inside were scrawled the words, "I love you, sister."

Speechless, I looked up and silently shared one of those memorable moments with my mother, who was looking at me with teary eyes. I was a changed person.

Today, as I continue my Lenten pilgrimage toward Holy Week, this childhood memory prompts my reflection on God's transforming love.

Throughout history, we mortals have given God a lot of reason for dismay:
     •Israelites complaining on their way to the Promised Land
     •crucifixion of Jesus, dissention in the Early Church   
     •murders, bombings, wars (often "in the name of God") 
     •domestic violence, sexual abuse, bullying, unkind words
     •self-centered, God-blaming "pity parties"
     •…the list goes on and on...

Yet, amazingly, God's response to the dark side of our humanity is always: "I LOVE YOU. After all, I created you. You are my beloved."

Henri Nouwen, in Bread for the Journey, says: "God's unconditional love means that God continues to love us even when we say or think evil things. …It is important for us to hold on to the truth that God never gives up loving us even when God is saddened by what we do. That truth will help us to return to God's ever-present love."

We mortals are sometimes able to change our outward behavior because of a strong will ("I will not do that again!") or external forces (parent to teenager: "You will not do that again!").

But those who are enlightened know that real, lasting, satisfying change is always internal. It is the transformation of one's Inner Self that brings serenity to one's soul.

Recovering alcoholics speak of serenity as the difference between being dry (living without alcohol through determination) and being sober (experiencing internal release through surrendering to a Higher Power).

Only God's expansive, overwhelming love has the power to transform us completely, from the inside out. Christians speak of this process in a variety of ways: sanctification, spiritual growth, redemption and conversion, among others.

Popular spiritual author Richard Rohr says: "God's love is total, unconditional, absolute and forever. The state of grace--God's attitude toward us--is eternal. We are the ones who change. …We have to allow God to continually fill us. Then we find in our own lives the power to give love away."

God is not only loving, God IS love (1 John 4:8). Ultimately, it is only to the extent that we fully realize the depths of God's eternal love for us that we are able to become thoroughly changed persons.

"What wondrous love is this, O my soul . . ."

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi

Monday, 4 February 2013

Take A Slice

Why do we worship?  Whom do we worship?

Worship is the primary action in our relationship with God, who initiates even our desire to worship. Through worship, God reveals Godself to us in a multitude of ways. We then respond to that revelation with offerings of gratitude and praise, service and testimony.

This dance of revelation and response doesn't just take place on Sunday mornings. God is present in every breath we take and in every person we encounter throughout our lives.

God is everywhere, and our response to God's revelation reveals whom we worship. We image God by our actions. People can tell who (or what) is our God by observing how we live our lives and arrange our priorities.

When we enter the sanctuary on Sundays, each of us must be intentional about connecting with God in order for our worship to be authentic. We are not there to be critics or "pew potatoes," expecting to be entertained.

Authentic worship will be "awe-full" as we enter the sanctuary, anticipating that God will speak to us personally as we seek God's face together.

Generally, those who approach worship glibly will not experience worship at all, only mindless moments filled with shallow emotion--something that could easily be experienced at a club meeting or sports event or patriotic rally.

There must always be an obvious difference between a worship service and a secular gathering. Our purpose for Sunday services is to worship God, never just to gather with friends and enjoy a nice, clean, inspirational program. A worship service is not a civic club meeting with entertaining music.

Attending well-planned services can help us worship, but that is not enough by itself. Authentic worship requires sustained effort by each individual, even when there are distractions and obstacles to our focusing on God. It is our continued effort at worshiping that is in itself pleasing to God.

Of course, God's Spirit can break through our psyches at any time, despite poor worship planning or good planning gone awry. But that is no excuse for leaders to throw worship services together carelessly.

In Word and Sacrament, D. McLeod says (though a bit stridently): "People who would hiss a play which was so ill-planned that the order of the acts and scenes was of no importance or would throw into a wastebasket a novel which was so utterly without form that chapter 3 and chapter 16 are interchangeable, still pathetically go to church on Sunday morning to take part in a disorderly medley of music, hymn singing, scripture reading, praying and the sermon. …Many church services today are a quaint mixture of concert, lecture and prayer meeting."

"Paul, writing to the Corinthians concerning worship, said, 'Let all be done decently and in order' (I Cor. 14:10). This can be accomplished by incorporating unity, movement, and design into the worship service." (Howard W. Roberts, Pastoral Care Through Worship)

Thoughtful, well-planned worship services should have a flow, a reason for various elements to connect with each other. This does not mean rigidity. Giving shape to a service does not preclude spontaneity. In fact, a well-planned worship service can be a vehicle for the Holy Spirit's initiative in the lives of God's people.

The Scriptures provide models to assist us: Old Testament (Isaiah 6) and New Testament (Acts 2). Both are based on a sequence: God reveals/God's people respond. [More about these worship models in future articles.]

There are many doorways to God. So it's important to plan as much variety as possible, opening many doors in the hope that individual worshipers will encounter God uniquely and meaningfully.

As a worship leader, I delight in enabling others to worship, teaching people how to worship authentically, planning services that help people focus on God rather than themselves, "creating space in which God can act."

Overall, my guiding principle is: If someone were to "take a slice" of any part of any worship service, she or he will find God there and be transformed.

See you in worship this Sunday - Naomi